In an address before the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill made one of his most often quoted remarks. “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried.” In a short version of the same thought Robert Kennedy said, “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard, it’s never easy.”
A characteristic of a well-functioning democracy should be an informed and involved public. We should be seeking public involvement, especially as we debate and decide on some of the critical issues that confront us today. Public involvement may be the only way to achieve the level of public support that will determine whether or not we succeed.
A commitment to an informed public is essential to the function of government at all levels, but it is especially so at the local level where the involvement of the public is easier to achieve. With regard to issues that range from the most complex to the merely mundane, the public has a right to information and a voice. Public officials function on behalf of the public. As such they have an obligation to inform and listen to their constituents.
In Cape May County we are pulling back from many avenues of public information and involvement rather than embracing and enhancing them. Truth be told it appears we are doing so because it makes the lives of our elected officials easier.
Post-pandemic we have seen town after town in the county retreat from the use of livestream technology to provide video access and a faithful record of municipal meetings. We have local governing bodies that refuse to make full copies of resolutions available to members of the public until after the vote.
Minutes of meetings meet the letter of the state statutes that govern them and go no further. They are often sterile statements of who was present, who voted how and if any discussion is captured at all, it is in a brief narrative that conveys little to those who were not present at the meeting. In many towns a survey of the municipal websites will show a number where minutes, even in a less than useful form, are months in arrears.
A few towns provide electronic access to both the resolutions and some of the documents that support them. Most do not. A few towns still provide video access to meetings. Again most do not. Very few of the municipalities allow technology-driven participation for members of the public that are not physically present at the meeting. The vast majority do not. This is even more indefensible in a county where a high percentage of the taxpayers are not year-round residents.
What are the reasons? We often hear about funding even though the amount required to provide a robust method of remote access is at a level the towns easily find whenever the project is something the governing body wants to do.
We are told there is little public outcry for enhanced participation. Of course this comes from officials who even when they provide remote access do little to publicize or encourage its use.
No the reason is a desire not to deal with the messy situations and debates that often accompany enhanced public involvement. When Avalon was being asked to extend remote access from its governing body meetings to its Planning and Zoning board, one councilmember reminded his colleagues of a Planning Zoning meeting during the pandemic when remote access was mandated. We had 500 plus people on the lines. “We don’t want a repeat of that,” he said. Yes we do.
One object of public involvement is to build a stronger community. Officials who view access to information as limited are doing a disservice to that community. They weaken it.
A simple list of actions necessary is not difficult to envision. Municipalities should commit to provide video real-time access to meetings of the governing body and key other municipal committees and boards, to allow remote participation by the public during public hearings and public comment periods, and to provide electronic access to draft copies of resolutions and ordinance prior to the vote on them, along with support material when appropriate.
Public involvement is messy, and it is not easy. It also is essential.
From the Bible:
The reward of humility [that is, having a realistic view of one’s importance] and the [reverent, worshipful] fear of the Lord Is riches, honor, and life. Proverbs 22:4